October 21, 2020

Book review: 'Caste: The origins of our discontent'

Title: 'Caste: The origins of our discontent'

Author: Isabel Wilkerson

Publisher: Allen Lane (15 September 2020)

Available in: Kindle edition, audio book, hard cover, and audio CD

“The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly."

But somewhere down the line, we seem to have forgotten just that. 

Isabel Wilkerson ‘Caste...the origin of our discontent’ is a hard-hitting eye opener to all those who have allowed themselves to be blinded by the repetitive prejudiced tellings of a caste based culture. 

The book tries to break down the complexities of caste and race workings into simpler building blocks, to help us understand from where it all started. 

Written in an easy-to-understand and interesting way, the narrative is a combination of a terrifying history, a grotesque reality, and tiny reminders that hit us hard and wake us up. 

At the very outset, Isabel draws parallels between the three major caste hierarchies in the world—-the chilling, officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany, the shapeshifting, unspoken race divide in America, and the lingering, millennia old and more insidious caste hierarchy in India. 

Of course, the author being African American, has grown up hearing, seeing, and feeling the ramifications of a racist society in her everyday life and personal interactions and this has placed her at a vantage point while explaining to us the situation in America than that in the other two countries. 

I, however, being Indian, could easily imagine the same incidents rolling out in almost exactly the same way here in India. The only difference being, here we are divided on the basis of ‘caste’ and there on the basis of ‘race’.

“Caste is the bones. Race is the skin.”

For all those who thought the two forms (of prejudice) were different from each other, Isabel aptly puts across the correct relationship between the two. Caste, she explains, is fixed, a more rigid concept while race is more fluid. However, both are interdependent. Both have wreaked terror and continue to do so even today despite there being existing laws against the discrimination they trigger. 

If one has read Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of the caste system’, it is easy to notice how similar the discrimination faced by the Dalits in medieval India was to the horror endured by the blacks in the U.S before the American civil war. 

The Jim Crow laws, the subjugation that the non-whites suffered at the hands of the whites, the humiliation, the flogging, the slavery, the rapes have all been happening with the marginalised in India as well. Likewise with the Jews who were assigned the status ‘Untermensch’ in the period that led to the third Reich.

In the segment on the eight pillars of caste, Isabel explores various prejudices, the myths and facades that were built to keep them in place, the laws against miscegenation, endogamy, and mind numbing horrors that one cannot even imagine inflicted on human or animal. 

The subservience of the subordinate castes made me squirm with discomfort. The cruelty they were made to suffer made me gasp. The illogical hatred, the senseless narcissism, the abuse (physical and mental) by the so-called ‘higher’ castes left me infuriated. 

The gory real life stories of ‘Negro’ slaves in America, the denigration of ‘untouchables’ in India are so painfully grotesque and dehumanising that I was tempted to abandon reading midway...but then it hit me—-that is exactly the problem with our society. We often want to live in denial of that which is not palatable, no matter how real. Refusing to acknowledge the atrocities, the bias, the prejudice of caste will not make it go away. 

It is pretty much like the monster under your bed...you don’t want to look because you are too afraid you may actually find it. Only, in this case, the ‘monster’ called caste is real. 

And that is what the book felt like—-harsh, painful, but authentic. 

The narrative is interspersed with anecdotes from the author’s own personal encounters and the criticism she faces only adds to the ‘real’ voice of the book. 

"Jaat naahi ti jaat,” is a popular Marathi saying that is reflective of the nature of the caste system. 

After reading this book and realising how global this phenomenon is, I was left speechless. 

Here we are in the 21st century, a so called modern and evolved era still trying to come to terms with the idiocy of the caste system, still dealing with the assumed superiority of some groups over others that they consider inferior based on immutable factors, like colour of skin, origin of birth, and ancestry. 

We have been handed down a regressive social construct, the disasters of which have been either perpetuated or suffered by our ancestors, and instead of destroying it, we continue to treasure it, respect it, revere it...as part of our heritage. This abominable heritage of hate.

Call it ‘varna’, ‘race’,  or ‘jaati’, caste by any other name is just as evil. 

The resurgence of the caste system, maybe in less obvious, more insidious ways, has made us forget the struggle of Martin Luther King, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule. 

We have become silent witnesses of communal mobs, of Dalits being lynched, of surnames being asked, of marriages being broken, of lovers being torn apart, of temples barring access...all evidence of the resurgence. 

But we choose to stay silent. We do not act. 

A line I read in this book springs to mind...

Something Bonhoeffer once said to bystanders, 

“God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Detailing the grim and the gory is not an easy task. And a book like this must have taken a whole lot of research.  Wilkerson has done a commendable job in piecing together ‘The origin of our discontent’, with need for special mention of how in the end, she ties it all up with glimmering threads of hope. Of the non-bias of white friends who stand up for her. Of the radicalisation of the dominant caste. Of people shedding their prejudices. Of realisation. Of equality. Of acceptance.

The chapter ‘The Heart is the last frontier’ is a beautiful reminder that the world can still be beautiful. 

I end here with the concluding line of the book. A line we all need to ponder upon, long before and after reading...

“A world without caste would set everyone free.”

I urge you to read this book and draw your own conclusions. I rate it a 5 on 5. A must read!

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